It is easy to get "lost" in them. A few months ago, I was reading some 19th century letters and when a library patron came in and asked me for a city directory from 1930, I accidentally wrote down 1830 and then quickly corrected myself, muttering, "Sorry, I was in the 19th century a few minutes ago." It sounds crazy but that's definitely what it seemed like.
“And I intend to scribble in you again.”
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American illustrator, painter, and muralist Olive Rush wrote the above intention to keep track of her days in her 1890 diary once she found it again. Indeed, she went on to “scribble” about her life and daily activities sporadically through 1932. Her diaries include accounts of going to school, practicing her painting, and hanging out with friends—activities that are noteworthy because of her eventual career as an artist.
As an intern at the Archives of American Art this summer, one of my projects has been reading artists’ diaries in order to find 366 days’ worth of “interesting” entries for eventual publication. My working definition of a diary entry is a date and text; I’ve excluded memoirs, autobiographical accounts, and other edited texts because the narrative distance from the event in question can become too great. The act of keeping a diary entails recording details someone considered important enough to remember soon after the event or thought occurred. For example, muralist Francis Davis Millet served as an assistant contract surgeon in Company C, 60th Massachusetts Volunteers during the Civil War. On May 20, 1864, he notes that he plucked “about half a cup full of maggots out of one man’s leg” during the Battle of Fredericksburg.
In my experience, reading diaries can be similar to visiting a foreign country, where after one adjusts to the taste of the food and the cadence of the language, one brings those mannerisms back to one’s homeland. When reading diaries, I’ve read volumes of an artist’s life, got stuck in their headspace, and ended up writing in nineteenth century English for a few days. I could try to offer some grand philosophy of diaries and their scholarly value, but after reading the writing of thirty individuals, I’ve come to the conclusion that keeping a diary is a subjective venture and there are no qualifications to write one. What one writes in that little codex, spiral bound notebook, or on loose-leaf is up to the writer, and subjects may include lists of daily activities, comments on one’s emotional state, and observations about one’s world—in short, notes about life that could apply to anyone. When institutions identify someone as a painter, sculptor, or photographer, based on that person’s activities, I’m not sure one can always use that person’s diary to support that professional title. Some artists do not even mention that they create; they record on the page other things about their lives. Painter Palmer C. Hayden mentioned world events more often than painting, including observing “meatless Mondays” during World War II.
Reading diaries has shown me how fundamentally connected people are, no matter how they are perceived. Everyone—artists included—eats, breathes, sleeps, worries about paying the bills, wonders when the next commission or project will come, ponders if a relationship will be personally or professionally profitable, and mulls over some prickly piece of gossip, and many people feel free to document these concerns in a diary. Artists are ordinary people, too. Anyone can keep a diary, and depending upon one’s career, that diary may someday be housed in an archive for patrons to peruse. While the immediate audience for most of these diaries was probably the author him- or herself, time makes all such documents written for a nebulous posterity. When a diary becomes part of an artist’s collection of papers, “posterity” takes on a new face: that of an archives patron.
Q Miceli was an Information Resource Management intern with the Archives of American Art for summer 2011. Ze is a rising senior at Princeton University, majoring in religion with certificates in creative writing and Judaic studies. Ze has kept a diary since age fifteen.
Internship, fellowship, and volunteer opportunities provide students and lifelong learners with the ability to contribute to the study and preservation of visual arts records in America.
You can help make digitized historical documents more findable and useful by transcribing their text.